On being a cynic in 2016

I’ve already griped about the deleterious effect rushes to consensus have on the meritocracy which is supposed to underlie American politics. But at the risk of being branded (not entirely inaccurately) a misanthropic pedant, I feel the increasing pressure for voters to fall in line with their party makes the point worth belaboring.

Partisanship should not be a pejorative, so long as it is a reflection of ideological agreement between the individual and a party organ. But neither should it be exhortative. Partisan identity cannot be a barrier to free through; it should be an aid of it.

The more exigent the issues of modern politics seem, the louder the calls by party leaders for the party elite and their members in the voting populace to fall in line. Questioning the party’s motives, narratives or ethics becomes tantamount to undermining its authority. It is cynical and that is A Bad Thing which promotes an image of the party as fractious and in chaos, and this leads to an inability to win, the Ultimate Bad Thing.

This vacuous and lazy rhetoric is more and more accepted wisdom. A few years ago, President Obama used the ultimate soapbox, the State of the Union address, to excoriate cynicism as a wholly un-American attitude.

This is a view, however, which is wholly ignorant of the true history of Cynicism, the precursor to and philosophical root of Stoic philosophy.

Cynics were a 4th century sect of Greek philosophers who believed virtue was the only good, that the key to virtue is self-control and that giving self-control to any entity besides oneself was undignified.

Modern cynics are not alone in being reviled by society; their philosophical forebears were similarly derided as a threat to consensus and the social order..

Diogenes of Sinope whom Plato reportedly called “a Socrates gone mad” is the most famous of the Cynics. Though his work has unfortunately not survived, if accounts of his views and behaviors are to be believed, Plato’s sardonic remark is less a statement of his sanity than a jaded commentary on Diogenes’  reactionary philosophy. Diogenes, who completely rejected social conventions such as status and coined the term cosmopolitan to emphasize his rejection of communal ownership over his thoughts or behaviors, was labelled an extremist by his contemporaries. He  believed an act done in private, if it lacked shame, should not be shameful in public. This attitude led to his ideas being descried as a degeneration of Socrates’ idealism, an ideal which would be right at home in modern relativistic society. Socrates’ Golden Mean, after all, tied virtue to the middle ground between extremes.

Diogenes rejected such prevarication. He should not be considered an extremist, but an absolutist, because his hard-line positions were guided by ethics and a value system which completely rejected the pressures exerted by the political hegemony of ancient society with its obsession with position and prestige. Certainly, Socrates was not a conformist, but his idea of virtue is far more influenced by the impact an action has on others.

The early Cynics, then, were radical individualists who rejected the notion that an individual should “go along to get along” in the interest of the greater good.

Seemingly, this is the same sentiment in the Declaration of Independence: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Is being a cynic un-American? No. To be a cynic is to be more than a disgruntled reactionary; it is a philosophical system for determining value-judgments and whether certain actions were of benefit to the individual or were merely blind conformity to social convention. It is to exert will over convention and to challenge the idea that the majority, simply because it is the majority, knows best.

This is an undemocratic idea, but America was not meant to be a democracy. The idea that conformity is necessary for the public good and that any questioning of social powers is a threat is ludicrous. Such reasoning is precisely the response given to the colonists by British power when they questioned taxation in the wake of the French and Indian War. The Founders were cynics. They were not swayed by voices which labelled their minority voices of dissent treasonous and they would not approve of it today.

Also published on Medium.

All content protected by copyright. The Politics of Discretion, 2016.
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